The Power of Breastfeeding
By Kelly Burgess
Rachel Simpson of Denver, Colo., doesn’t know what she would have done without the ability to breastfeed her son, Owen, when he was sick. She says she felt helpless enough as it was, and breastfeeding soothed him like no medicine could.
“In fact, once, when he had a very scary case of croup, I had to wait several hours through the night, waiting for his doctor’s office to open, and the only thing that soothed the coughing was nursing,” she says. “I was in a near-panic, honestly, and the only thing that soothed me was knowing that I had something that could help him until I could get him to the doctor. And even then, the doctor told me that there wasn’t much they could do – just nurse as often as he liked and wait it out. Without breastfeeding, I would have felt totally helpless during his illnesses.”
For children who are vomiting, breast milk is all they need while they’re sick.
Not only was Simpson soothing Owen by breastfeeding him while he was sick, according to Dr. Todd Wolynn, board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), pediatrician and co-founder of the Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh, she was also providing him with antibodies to fight and prevent further infection and to help him heal more quickly. In fact, while babies who are bottle fed may need supplements such as Pedialyte when they have gastrointestinal upsets, breast milk is uniquely formulated to be easier to digest so it won’t worsen vomiting and diarrhea while providing the baby with important nutrients.
Upper Respiratory Infections
Breastfeeding can be tricky for babies with upper respiratory infections because it’s difficult for a baby to suck, breathe and swallow all at the same time. Dr. Wolynn suggests using a bulb syringe in conjunction with saline drops, which are readily available at any store that sells over-the-counter medications. The saline drops help to loosen up nasal congestion and make the suctioning more effective. With the sole exception of saline drops, children under 2 years old should never be given cold medications (such as over-the-counter antihistamines or cough syrup) without consulting the child’s pediatrician.
Catherine Watson Genna, IBCLC, who has a private practice as a lactation consultant in New York City, also suggests the following techniques to make it easier for a baby with a stuffy nose to nurse:
- Use a humidifier in the baby’s room to keep mucous from drying out.
- Instead of saline drops, dab the baby’s nose with a few drops of breast milk. This also helps loosen mucous.
- Lean back a little so the baby is sitting more upright and allow him to latch on and off as needed.
- Support the baby’s shoulders and neck, but not his head. This gives the baby greater freedom of movement to coordinate breathing and sucking.
- Run a hot shower and nurse in the steamy bathroom.
Gastrointestinal infections, which can include vomiting or diarrhea or both, are a little more confusing. While the baby may not have trouble nursing, mothers often worry that their breast milk may be worsening the symptoms. Dr. Wolynn says not to worry. “Some years ago we would suggest bland diets for children, but now we just say they should eat whatever they normally eat,” he says. “This is particularly true of breast milk.”
When diarrhea is the main problem, Dr. Wolynn says to watch the quantity of food being given and suggests it may be helpful to think of the stomach as a muscle. When food passes through, it contracts. If it’s inflamed and irritated and too much food is introduced, it will not tolerate it well. Try feeding the baby a little more often and with smaller quantities. For example, if you normally nurse for 20 minutes, try nursing for half that time. Then, just walk the baby around and hold him for a while, and do 10 more minutes.
For children who are vomiting, breast milk is all they need while they’re sick. Pedialyte or similar supplements are rarely needed for a baby who is being breastfed; in particular, notes Dr. Wolynn, juice and water are never a good substitute for breast milk for a baby who is vomiting. Breast milk is uniquely formulated to be easy to digest, and the proteins and fats will nourish the baby while he’s recovering. It will also not cause dehydration because it has just the right ratio of minerals and salts to water for human babies.
While most illnesses are fairly mild, sometimes even a common cold can progress to something more serious. Dr. Wolynn says it’s important to watch for signs that an illness is worsening and the baby may need to see a doctor. In the case of an upper respiratory illness, look for signs that the baby is struggling to breathe.
Signs may include any of these:
- An appearance of “sucking in” the abdomen
- Flaring nostrils
- Grunting or panting noises while breathing in and out
Any of these may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as broncheolitis, which must be dealt with immediately by the child’s physician.
The biggest danger with gastrointestinal illnesses is dehydration, which, according to Dr. Wolynn, is one of the most frequent causes of hospitalization in infants. This is not to imply that it’s particularly common, because it isn’t, particularly in breastfed babies. However, do call the doctor if you notice any of the following:
- Fewer than 3 wet diapers in a day. Frequency of urination is the No.1 indicator of possible dehydration.
- Dry mouth. If the child has absolutely no saliva, this can be a symptom.
- Tears. The body generally won’t make tears if it is dehydrated. If the baby is crying without tears, call the doctor.
Beyond those warning signs, if a child is extremely lethargic, looks very sick or has absolutely stopped eating, call the doctor. These are all signs of illness beyond the standard childhood viruses. Dr. Wolynn adds that a baby 6 months old or younger who is exclusively breastfed will virtually never go on what is termed a “nursing strike” where he or she stops nursing temporarily. If your baby refuses to nurse, call the doctor. Also, call your doctor if you’re just worried; that’s what he or she is there for, Dr. Wolynn says. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
The bottom line is that there is never any reason to stop breastfeeding a sick child. If your doctor tells you to, in the absence of a serious problem that requires hospitalization, it’s possible that he is not as well informed as he could be on the topic. Be sure he does justify his recommendation and, if necessary, contact a breastfeeding professional in your area to try to work it out for everyone’s benefit.